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Aurora Institute

What Is Competency Education?

Education Domain Blog

Authors: iNACOL Staff

Issues: Issues in Practice, How to Get Started


bigstock-Cute-pupils-in-computer-class--85201370--reducedCompetency education, an educator-led reform, is taking root in districts and schools across the United States and around the world. At the same time, new and innovative school models are developing and scaling, contributing to our overall understanding of new ways to teach and learn within a competency-based structure.

As an emerging and evolving field, it is essential to clearly define competency education to challenge misconceptions and level-set the field to improve learning opportunities for every student. Regularly-published, field-tested definitions prove useful for generating shared understanding, building knowledge and capacity, and challenging misconceptions. By clearly defining competency education and differentiating it from other emerging key terms, the field can close communication gaps and advance toward next generation learning with increased clarity, effectiveness and scalability.

Competency Education, Defined

In 2011, iNACOL and CompetencyWorks led a summit bringing together 100 practitioners and educators working on competency education for the first time. At that meeting, participants discussed, developed and fine-tuned a working definition of competency education:

  • Students advance upon demonstrated mastery;
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students;
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students;
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs; and
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.  

Leaders and practitioners throughout the field of K-12 education are using the terms competency-based, proficiency-based, mastery-based and performance-based interchangeably in their own contexts — however, iNACOL uses the term competency education.

In competency education, students understand learning objectives and “show what they know” through a performance to demonstrate the level of proficiency and advance to the next learning goal. In “Two Sides of the Same Coin”, Scott Marion explains the importance of student work and evidence of learning: “The assessments used to evaluate the degree to which students have achieved the learning goals should be of high quality; that is, they should be designed to provide credible evidence of how well students have mastered the intended learning goal. First, if the learning goals are of the rich form described above it is unlikely that they will be measured well with just a single assessment. Multiple assessments will be required, and we argue that a performance or other authentic assessment must be part of the assessment system designed to evaluate the learning goal.”  Building educator capacity and calibrated professional judgements on performance assessments are hallmarks of a high-quality competency education system.

If a student does not demonstrate adequate proficiency to advance, then students must be provided with supports and interventions that help address their individual needs and fill the gaps in their knowledge and skills. By designing the system around what students must learn, rather than how much time they spend in school, educators are advancing powerful, personalized learning experiences and maximizing each student’s potential.

In competency education systems, students may have multiple pathways to acquire competencies. Learning can occur both formally and informally—allowing students to demonstrate competency in a wide variety of ways by learning content through different modalities, experiences and methods—inside and outside of school walls and in their communities.

The same high standards are set for all students to maintain rigor—but students have greater voice and choice in how, where, when and what they are learning to achieve competency, aligned to the standards, and how they demonstrate mastery through a performance.

Competency Education Drives Personalization

To be clear, personalization is not equal to competency education. They are related terms and often, mistakenly, used interchangeably. A competency education system enables personalized learning by opening the system to allow multiple pathways for demonstrating what a student knows and can do.

To meet every student’s needs, we strive to move the system toward personalized learning models that are student-centered. The concept of personalization is the overarching instructional model goal. Personalization can be realized through high-quality blended learning modalities — but these models must be competency-based in nature, requiring students to demonstrate mastery in a meaningful way.

Using the five-part definition of competency education, the Table below describes how competency education and personalized learning fit together.

mean_PL & CBE

Competency Education Challenges the Traditional System

When we think about the traditional “time-based system,” students experience variable amounts of learning within fixed amounts of time—yielding students with varying levels of “gaps” in their learning as they move from grade to grade. For example, in a time-based system, even a “B” average in a course assumes the student may be missing 15-20% of the content knowledge. Students are passed on with “C”s and “D”s, unprepared for the next course. When this core foundational knowledge is missing, students are unprepared for the next level, and the system is setting them up for failure.

This permits students to enter the next level with prior learning gaps, fails to provide student supports to ensure mastery before they move onto the next lesson and creates classrooms with one-size-fits-all curriculum despite students with diverse needs.

Competency education challenges this key policy issue: seat-time, or awarding credit based on the amount of time a student is in a seat for each course, regardless of what was learned. Instead, if learning was based on students demonstrating mastery of competencies, with policies for quality, accountability and assessment of learning, students could acquire knowledge from both formal and informal settings and demonstrate the knowledge for credit in schools. Competency education provides the foundation to transform and open anytime, everywhere learning that enables personalized learning in powerful ways.

Across the U.S., there have been significant developments in state-level policy towards competency education systems to enable new learning models and focus on mastery.

Competency education is a necessary foundation in both policy and practice for personalized learning approaches to thrive to provide high-quality, flexible personalized learning to all students. Competency education requires the learning environment to be redesigned so that failure is not an option.

Learn more about competency education:

What does competency education mean to you? Let us know by responding in the comments below or tweeting to @nacol, or become a guest blogger and tell us about your journey toward competency education.